Thursday, September 13, 2012

On Lighting Up

Years ago I was playing piano in a crappy nightclub, the name of which makes me nauseous to remember, probably because I wish I hadn't wasted so many hours of my young life there.

For some reason yesterday a memory came into my head while at the doctor's office, seeing a my new doctor for the first time, a very young doctor, while I am not so young. My memory was from that pathetic nightclub in Arkansas. I can see it sitting there on the side of a freeway like some huge turd waiting to be flushed. And because of Google, I can see literally see that it is still there.

But to be honest I also had some good times there. I was much younger at the time.

The owner occasionally brought in some has-been musicians (like Sha Na Na and Jan and Dean), and we would be the opening act. On the particular night I'm remembering we had a woman (I can't remember her name) from Nashville who had one big record in the 1950s and then faded away. How old was she? 50? 60? None of us in the band had ever heard of her. Along with her was a man, her husband I think, also a singer but less well-known. And while he was red-faced telling jokes and shaking hands and talking loud, she was the opposite: pale despite all her makeup, a little wrinkled, a little gray, possibly in pain, possibly medicated, and quiet.

These two were alone--no band. So they arrived early to teach us her big song and then practice a few standards. She was clearly weak and shaky, but her partner laughed it away and joked that everything would be OK. Practice couldn't have lasted more than 5 or 10 minutes.

That night we had a packed house--apparently the place was filled with the woman's fans. She sat in a chair near the stage, greeting people quietly in her lacy dress with puffy sleeves. Why do I remember all this?

The man got on stage first, sang a few songs, told some jokes. But all of us in the band were worried when he introduced the woman and she quietly climbed the stage. She seemed like such a nice person.

Then, with the microphone in her hand she just turned on, lit up like a Christmas tree, sparkling with such charisma and singing with such strength that we all were stunned. She was the real pro, and she lasted for almost an hour on stage. Then she returned to her chair and she turned off again. Lights out.

I remember one thing in particular. At the end of the night I went over to her chair to congratulate her. Before I could say a word, she took my hand and pulled me close so that she could whisper into my ear. She lit up again for that instant, and I could imagine the beautiful young face that was once there.

"Thank you for being so kind," she said.

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